Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade.
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
(“Nostalgia,” Billy Collins)
The Middle Ages are a tricky topic: in one direction, there is the temptation of cheesy RenFest nostalgia (which, among other things, Collins is mocking); going the other way, one succumbs easily to our natural distaste for foreign cultures, untempered in this case by the counterbalance of political correctness. I was reminded of this recently on reading Amy Gerstler’s “Letter From the Middle Ages,” in which the medieval writer describes for a modern addressee a world of such brutality and rigidity that getting kidnapped by barbarians is considered an upgrade, and longs to experience modern conveniences. It’s cute in its way, but imagine the same poem as “Letter from New Guinea”–it would seem pretty gauche, wouldn’t it?
Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, which is mostly set in the 1340s, does not suffer from either pitfall of medievalizing. It’s a hard book to describe–for example, I found myself thinking that my friend J would like it because she’s into saints and infectious diseases. It might also amuse people interested in German language and folklore, medieval philosophy, the history of science, modern physics, and really weird stories. The plot is basically this: space aliens who resemble giant grasshoppers crash-land their ship in the Black Forest village of Oberhochwald in 1348. The aliens try to figure out how they can repair their ship, which travels through the tiny extra dimensions posited by string theory, while the villagers wrestle with the question whether their visitors are demons, and the priest tries to decide whether they can by baptized.
The fun here lies in the tragicomic earntestness of the two groups’ attempts to communicate, and the bizarre shape that modern ideas assume when translated into the worldview of a medieval intellectual (for the village priest happens to be a scholar lying low). When pastor Dietrich first encounters the aliens’ speech synthesizer, he assumes that the talking box must contain a tiny person, and picks a Heinzelmaennchen from among the many elfin critters found in the Black Forest. Eventually he comes to understand that the box is actually translating for the alien Krenken, and that the Krenken are afraid that they will die stranded in this distant land. He offers to help get them a new “cart,” and one of the Krenken explains that they live really far away:
“No, no, no. It cannot be walked, and your carts cannot endure the journey.”
“Well, William of Rubruck walked to Cathay and back, and Marco Polo and his uncles did the same more lately, and there is on this earth no farther place than Cathay.”
The Krenk faced him once more and it seemed to Dietrich that those yellow eyes glowed with a peculiar intensity. But that was a trick of the shadows and the candlelight. “No farther place on this earth,” the creature said, “but there are other earths.”
“Indeed there may be, but the journey there is no natural journey.”
The Krenk, always wooden in expression, seemed to stiffen the more. “You… know of such journeys — question.”
The Heinzelmännchen had yet to master expression. The Kratzer had told Dietrich that krenkish languages employed rhythm rather than tone to indicate humor or query or irony. Thus, Dietrich could not be certain that he had heard hope in the machine’s translation.
“The journey to heaven…,” Dietrich suggested, to be sure he understood.
The Krenk pointed skyward. “’Heaven’ is up there — question.”
“Ja. Beyond the firmament of the fixed stars, beyond even the crystalline orb or the prime mobile, the unmoving empyrean heaven. But, the journey is made by our inner selves.”
“How strange that you would know this. How say you ‘all-that-is’: earth, stars, all — question.”
“’The world. ‘Kosmos’.”
“Then, hear. The kosmos is indeed curved and the stars — and… I must say, ‘families of stars,’ are embedded within it, as in a fluid. But in — another — direction, neither width nor breadth nor height, lies the other side of the firmament, which we liken to a membrane, or skin.”
“A tent,” Dietrich suggested; but he had to explain ‘tent,’ as the Heinzelmännchen had never seen one named.
The Krenk said, “Natural philosophy progresses differently in different arts, and perhaps your people have mastered the ‘other world’ while remaining… simple in other ways.” It looked again out the window. “Could salvation be possible for us…”
The last comment, Dietrich suspected, had not been intended for him to hear. “It is possible for everyone,” he said cautiously.
The Krenk beckoned with its long arm. “Come, and I will explain, although the talking head may not own the words.” When Dietrich had come hesitantly to his side, the Krenk pointed to the darkening sky. “Out there sit other worlds.”
Dietrich nodded slowly. “Aristotle held that impossible, since each world would move naturally toward the center of the other; but the Church has ruled that God could create many worlds should He wish, as my master showed in his nineteenth question on the heavens.”
The Krenk rubbed its arms slowly. “You must introduce then me to your friend, God.”
And so on. The Krenk and some of the villagers do learn to live together and to face death together–those of you who follow such things will recognize 1348 as the year when the Black Death arrived in Europe, killing perhaps a third of its population. I see from Flynn’s Wikipedia page that he is known as a writer of “hard” science fiction, but he writes with a deep sympathy for his alien characters, both the space aliens and the time aliens such as paster Dietrich, and only his modern people exhibit a bit of the flatness and patness that one associates with most hard sf.
Indeed, though it may be the price of such a sympathetic portrait, I am afraid Flynn may share too much of the medieval world-view. He tends to downplay the harshness with which Church and lord wielded their power, and I notice that his medieval village is bizarrely free of domestic violence. Actually, I am surprised that a writer who has collaborated with the creepy Jerry Pournelle (as Flynn has) has written a book that I can stand to read. (Pournelle is a noted writer of military sf, crony of Newt Gingrich, and member of the large group of hard sf writers crippled by spending too much of their lives in places where there are no women).
Still, the book is unique, and apart from the storyline, its many debates make you think about what a strange and delicate thing science is. Hans the Krend tries to explain to Dietrich that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and Dietrich in turn presents to a visitor a new theory that the earth spins on its axis. In neither case does the modern view win the argument, something that probably surprises and frustrates many readers, but should it? I remember a friend, a man of considerable culture in the arts, once told me that science didn’t interest him because in science, you just learned a fact and were done with it, while in art you kept re-interpreting things. This is not at all my experience of science; instead, I find knowledge to be terribly slippery, pinned down in one place but easily undermined if I ask too many questions, since the web of logic and evidence is so vast, and built upon so many layers. I suppose that what I would consider true knowledge in science is pretty rare (and surely beyond an amateur like me): the ability to explain something to a person who is very smart and rational but shares none of your training and won’t take things on faith.